Barnsley v Swansea City - Alex Mowatt hitting new heights for the Reds

BACK in the summer of 2018, Alex Mowatt’s career was at a crossroads. It is a time he remembers well.
Leading the charge: 
Barnsley's Alex Mowatt. Picture: Jonathan GawthorpeLeading the charge: 
Barnsley's Alex Mowatt. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Leading the charge: Barnsley's Alex Mowatt. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

In the here and now, the Barnsley captain is preparing to lead out the Reds in tonight’s semi-final first leg with Swansea, a game which has aroused nationwide interest. Life is undeniably good.

He would not be human if the prospect of potentially leading the club to promotion at Wembley in less than a fortnight had not crossed his mind.

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It could have been so different. Ahead of the 2018-19 campaign, the Reds talisman is the first to acknowledge that he thought that his Oakwell career was over.

Captains: Alex Mowatt races in on Swans counterpart and former Leeds United team-mate Matt Grimes.  Picture: Tony JohnsonCaptains: Alex Mowatt races in on Swans counterpart and former Leeds United team-mate Matt Grimes.  Picture: Tony Johnson
Captains: Alex Mowatt races in on Swans counterpart and former Leeds United team-mate Matt Grimes. Picture: Tony Johnson

Back at the club after a season-long loan at Oxford United in 2017-18 that proved to be no great shakes, Mowatt – who had joined just under 18 months earlier from Leeds United – was preparing to move on again, potentially for good.

Instead, former head coach Daniel Stendel saw something he liked and the rest is history. Barnsley went up to the Championship in 2018-19 and Mowatt’s leadership and performance levels in the past three seasons have been wonderfully consistent – under Stendel, Gerhard Struber and now Valerien Ismael.

His status as one of the top midfield operators in the second-tier is assured. He has come a long way in recent times.

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Mowatt told The Yorkshire Post: “That (18-19) season, before Stendel believed in me, anything could have happened.

Play-maker: Alex Mowatt.
 Picture: Bruce RollinsonPlay-maker: Alex Mowatt.
 Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Play-maker: Alex Mowatt. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

“I could have gone to another League One side and struggled there or something like that. But Stendel’s way of playing suited me to a tee and he really liked me. I thank him for that because he got my career back on track.

“I don’t know how much I can say but I don’t think Barnsley wanted me there that summer and wanted me to go out on loan to obviously pay my wages.

“Stendel was the one who kept me at the club and said I was going to play and he did that and I repaid him by getting promoted. It helped me massively from him doing that as well.

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“It has been really good since then and the difference is that when you fully focus on football, there are few limits to what you can achieve.

Hoping for more celebrations: Alex Mowatt. Picture: Tony JohnsonHoping for more celebrations: Alex Mowatt. Picture: Tony Johnson
Hoping for more celebrations: Alex Mowatt. Picture: Tony Johnson

“Since I have done that, I have been a lot better player and more consistent, I’d say.”

Aside from one of his mentors in former Leeds head coach and Barnsley captain Neil Redfearn, several head coaches failed to truly get the best out of Mowatt at Elland Road in the way that those at Oakwell have, with Ismael having taken his career to new heights this season.

Given licence to effect games in the final third and be the club’s creative set-piece source and encouraged to shoot whenever he gets the chance, Mowatt is in full bloom again as he was in those fertile early days at Leeds when that wand of a left foot was deliciously showcased on a number of occasions.

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Should Barnsley go all the way and reach the top-flight for just the second time in the history, expect the Doncaster-born player to have a fair say in it.

Mowatt, 26, said: “I had good two or three good seasons at Leeds. Then, there were changes of manager and things like that. It came where I did not know if I was going to play. Then a manager would come in, and I’d play on the left wing and then a different manager would come in and I’d play at ‘ten’. It was difficult, but that just wasn’t for me, but everyone there.

“The only reason I wanted to leave Leeds was because I was not playing. I was going on for five or ten minutes to see the game out at 1-0 and you can’t really do much in that time. I wanted to play and get my career back on track.

“It probably took me two years to get my head around leaving Leeds and after that, I have just enjoyed every minute of it.”

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On the honour of captaining the Reds in their first play-off sortie at this level since 1999-2000, he added: “It is a massive achievement to captain any side in the Championship.

“I was 24 at the time when I first became captain and for anyone who is 24 and becomes captain of a Championship side, it is a big achievement.

“I was buzzing then and still am now that I am captain of the club and in the play-offs, which is a bigger achievement.”

Just as the back-story of Mowatt and the way in which he has admirably fought back from a tough time in his career brings hope to many of his contemporaries, the tale of his Swansea counterpart and someone who he knows well in Matt Grimes is also an inspiring lesson in what can be achieved.

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Bought by the Swans for a considerable outlay of £1.75m from League Two side Exeter in January, 2015, Grimes found himself farmed out on loan to first Blackburn and then Leeds in his first two seasons in Wales.

The second saw him link up with ex-Swans chief Garry Monk at Leeds in 2016-17, where he played alongside Mowatt and struggled to win over United supporters.

A third loan spell followed at Northampton Town in 2017-18, the same season that Mowatt was also in the third tier at Oxford.

Just like Mowatt, Grimes – five months younger than his rival – has not looked back at his current club since the start of 2018-19. One of them should be leading their side out at Wembley in just 12 days’ time.

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Mowatt continued: “I was with Grimesy at Leeds. He got a bit of hammer off the fans, but in training, he was unbelievable.

“I always knew that he would go on and have a great career and he is captain of Swansea now and this season he has been different class.”

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